Taking Page From Authoritarians, Trump Turns Power of State Against Political RivalsHistorians in the News
tags: Richard Nixon, authoritarianism, Donald Trump
President Trump’s order to his secretary of state to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails, along with his insistence that his attorney general issue indictments against Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., takes his presidency into new territory — until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan.
Mr. Trump has long demanded — quite publicly, often on Twitter — that his most senior cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals this week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons.
He took a step even Richard M. Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct, immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his re-election campaign.
“There is essentially no precedent,” said Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush and has written extensively on presidential powers. “We have a norm that developed after Watergate that presidents don’t talk about ongoing investigations, much less interfere with them.”
Presidential historians say there is no case in modern times where the president has so plainly used his powers to take political opponents off the field — or has been so eager to replicate the behavior of strongmen. “In America, our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, wrote on Twitter after Mr. Trump returned from the hospital where he received Covid-19 treatment and removed his mask, while still considered contagious, as he saluted from the White House balcony.
William P. Barr may face an even greater challenge in satisfying the president. No attorney general since John N. Mitchell, who served Mr. Nixon and brought conspiracy charges against critics of the Vietnam War, bent the Justice Department more in a president’s direction. And Mr. Nixon himself, while urging the I.R.S. to audit political opponents, stopped short of publicly calling for individual prosecutions. Yet in February, Mr. Barr told ABC News that Mr. Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” At the same time, he complained that the president’s tweets about the Justice Department “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
Now, clearly, the president has asked Mr. Barr to act in a criminal case — and not in a quiet phone call. Instead, he did it on Twitter and Fox News, expressing his deep disappointment with his second attorney general, for essentially the same reason he fired his first one, Jeff Sessions: insufficient blind loyalty.
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